Home Featured The murky world of online age certification raises privacy questions

The murky world of online age certification raises privacy questions

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The internet is moving from an age of prurience to one of protection. A sudden rush of age-verification laws designed to stop children from accessing explicit content is about to change the way that millions of people use websites.

Online pornography is ubiquitous, even if the old joke that everything on the internet is porn is not quite true. Adult websites do not make the top 10 most visited sites. But they do take slots 11, 13 and 14. Their prevalence has been credited with pushing widespread adoption of everything from faster broadband to video streaming.

Adult content is known for driving traffic to social media platforms too. When Tumblr banned pornography in 2018, its popularity plummeted.

You could argue that licentious websites fulfil the original dream of techno-utopians: that the internet should be a place of total freedom, without surveillance or censorship. Of course, it’s easier to be idealistic when you’re not paying attention to what the sites contain, or who is watching them.

Surveys suggest that young people accessing pornography is extremely common. Recent research by the Children’s Commissioner for England found that one in 10 nine-year-olds had seen pornographic content. A study by the French regulator Arcom discovered that a fifth of 10-year-old boys were looking at explicit websites at least once a month. For some, these artificial and extreme videos are their first introduction to adult sexual relationships.

The remedy being proposed is a barrier that would force users to show ID proving they are adults — just as they might when buying alcohol. In some places, such measures are already in place.

This year, anyone attempting to open a pornography website in Louisiana was immediately directed towards an age-verification system. Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Virginia, Utah and other states are all taking similar steps.

There is plenty to criticise about these decisions. Why is 18 the cut-off when the minimum age for marriage in many states is 16? How can sites ensure the security of user ID? But a broad attempt to find ways to stop children seeing explicit or harmful online content is edging forward.

In the next few weeks, the UK’s sprawling, long-delayed online safety bill is expected to become law, forcing pornography sites to add age verification. For a long time, UK rules were stuck in the age of top-shelf magazines and DVDs — focused on the sale of films and display of “indecent matter”. Attempts to bring laws up to date stalled.

In 2019, the government wanted to introduce a new law that made it illegal for pornographic material sold online to be accessible to under 18s. But that plan was delayed, then abandoned. Now it has been resurrected.

The difficulty of choosing an effective and secure way to verify age without endangering privacy is still being raised as an objection, as is the possibility of virtual private networks, or VPNs, being used to circumvent age blocks.

Australia found this last month when it decided to abandon its plans to force pornography websites to introduce age verification. Instead, the job of better protecting children has been left up to parents. A new education platform is being created that will teach guardians how to install software that will limit kids’ access to certain sites. It seems unlikely, though, that this will remain the only restriction.

Unsurprisingly, the loudest voices opposing age verification include adult website owners and privacy campaigners. The San Francisco-based digital non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation has called the tools “surveillance systems”. Aylo, the owner of adult entertainment sites including Pornhub and Brazzers, says it supports age verification but criticises implementation.

“Pornhub was one of the few sites to comply with the new law [in Louisiana],” said a spokesperson for the company. “Since then, our traffic in Louisiana dropped approximately 80 per cent.” Instead of forcing platforms to check ages, it suggests more controls be added to children’s devices.

But age verification is not limited to adult content. At the end of last year, Meta announced that it was working with online age-verification company Yoti to add its tools to its dating site. Amazon has introduced its palm-based identity service to two bars in Denver, allowing them to verify customers are over the drinking age. It seems the tech could fast become widespread.

Age verification is a blunt tool. Online users will not be keen to upload a picture of their driver’s licence or passport to access sites that are perfectly legal. But the idea of protecting young children tends to attract unyielding support. Online privacy, already something of a myth, is about to take another hit.

elaine.moore@ft.com

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